Here’s some good news for fans of Huey Lewis: he refuses to venture outside the musical realm at a time when some of his ’80s-hitmaking contemporaries are letting reality TV take the driver’s wheel.
“I’m not doing ‘Dancing with the Stars’ anytime soon,” he told the Roanoke (Va.) Times in an interview earlier this year. “I made a deal with myself that once we could pay the bills that my choices would be creative ones and not commercial ones. So, that’s how I run the show.”
That show which puts music first — and there are lot of News hits to pack that live set — returns to Reno for a concert on Dec. 29 at Silver Legacy.
This show is close to the band’s beloved Bay Area, where it started. And yet, it took a pond hop for the band to start taking flight. Lewis and longtime keyboardist Sean Hopper were in another group together, called Clover, in the early ’70s. Their whole group moved to England later that decade and also found fame as backing musicians for, in Lewis’ case, Thin Lizzy and its late singer/bassist Phil Lynott, and in Hopper’s case, Elvis Costello for his debut album.
Upon returning to the Bay Area, Lewis and Hopper joined with other vets from bands to form Huey Lewis and the News, but the new group was slow to build. A debut, self-titled album in 1980 was only a marginal success, but a second album, “Picture This” in 1982, ended up going gold with two big hits, “Do You Believe in Love” and “Workin’ For a Livin’”
Lewis told Paste Magazine earlier this year that it was hard to get those first hit singles.
“I don’t have a typical radio voice,” he said. “We insisted on producing our own records because we knew we were going to have to make commercial considerations that we wanted to live with over time. And we weren’t spring chickens; we’d been in a few bands before. So, we aimed every one of those tunes at radio because we knew we needed a hit.
“We didn’t know we’d have six of them eventually. But we knew we needed one. And we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so one was kind of a rocker and one was kind of a ballad, and they’re all different.”
The power of singles
It was the band’s next album, “Sports” in 1983, which really took off. Four singles hit the top 10 — “I Want a New Drug,” “If This is It,” “Heart and Soul” and “The Heart of Rock and Roll” — and the band became staples in arenas and on MTV.
“The record to me now sounds like exactly what it was — a record of its time, which was a collection of singles,” Lewis told Paste about “Sports.” “And while we produced those singles, we were anachronistic even then, which is maybe one of the reasons the songs have held up.”
Lewis expanded on this idea in an interview earlier this year with Keys Weekly Magazine in Florida. He said he does feel that the News’ hits fit in better in today’s pop world than they did when they were hits.
“We were kind of old fashioned then, so we’ve grown into it better in a way,” Lewis said. “And the other thing is we are from the Bay Area, and we’ve always written and produced our own stuff. So, we’ve always maintained that homogeneity of Northern California, stay out of the mainstream and do our own thing. And that’s what resonates.”
Other hits followed, including “The Power of Love,” from the film “Back to the Future,” which hit No. 1 on the charts. There was also a big-selling album called “Fore!” in 1986, which had five more top 10 hits to its credit, including “Stuck with You” and “Hip To Be Square.”
Even with less commercial success in the ’90s, the band continued to tour and release albums. For decades it has mixed more R&B elements into its music, and even had a radio hit in 1993 with a doo-wop styled version of the Curtis Mayfield soul classic, “It’s Alright.” Its most recent album is 2010’s “Soulsville,” a tribute to ’60s and ’70s Southern soul music, which reached No. 18 on Billboard’s R&B albums chart.
Some more recent News
Six years could be considered a long time for an artist to not release new material. Lewis told the Roanoke Times that the News’ hard touring contributed to the band’s lack of original music in this century.
“We were pretty prolific for a while, then boom, flat, couldn’t write,” Lewis said. “We toured and played so much, and then the experiences narrow … all from hotel room to gig. There’s not a lot of songs there. We tried to write all through this. We wrote some songs, but frankly, not very good ones.
“You’ve got to kind of wait for them to come to you. Now, for some reason, I’ve had some ideas. I think it’s my advancing age. I’m growing into it a little bit and accepting it a little bit better and poking fun at it. It’s a creative thing.”
Lewis gave more details to Paste Magazine, saying that four songs were finished, two were still “in the oven,” and that there are ideas for two more new songs.
“We’re going to have another record out,” he said. “I’m hoping to release it on Patagonia Records. I’m a fisherman. I’m going to go to Yvonne Channard, the head founder of Patagonia and say, ‘You want to start a record company? You and me.’ Or whatever, anybody who’ll have us. Peets Coffee Records.”
The current lineup of the News includes founding members Lewis, Hopper, drummer Bill Gibson and sax/guitar player Johnny Colla. Lead guitarist Stef Burns joined in 2001, while bassist John Pierce has been with the News since 1995. There’s also a horn section at most live dates: Marvin McFadden on trumpet, Rob Sudduth on sax, and Johnnie Bamont on both trumpet and sax.
Lewis told the Roanoke Times that the extended band is great live.
“We actually work at it,” he said. “I think we sound better than we’ve ever sounded as a band. I may be deluding myself.”